Can Johnny Depp’s Career Survive His Salacious Trial?
Drugs, alcohol, more than half a billion dollars vanished and allegations of domestic violence.© AP
These are the makings of a PR nightmare, enough to ruin even the biggest star’s career. But for Johnny Depp, these headlines have become his reality, as the damaged A-lister undergoes a messy trial in the public eye where he has repeatedly denied abusing his ex-wife Amber Heard. Depp’s years-long denial of such behavior, his libel trial in the United Kingdom — which ended last week and still awaits a final verdict, following the actor’s decision to sue the tabloid The Sun for labeling him a “wife beater” — has aired dirty laundry to a nauseating extent that would make any crisis fixer cringe. It has raised questions about whether or not the reputation of one of Hollywood’s leading men can ever be rehabilitated.
Depp is one of the most recognizable celebrities on the planet, ranking among the top 10 highest-grossing movie stars of all time. His films have brought in more than $10 billion at the worldwide box office over his three decades in showbiz. Breaking out as a teen heartthrob in the late 80’s on “21 Jump Street,” Depp transformed into one of the most highly-regarded actors in Hollywood, earning three Academy Award nominations over the years, morphing throughout iconic roles in “Edward Scissorhands,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Sweeney Todd” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, which catapulted him to global superstardom and inducted him into the Disney Legends hall of fame.
In 2010, Depp was named the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, earning $75 million, according to Forbes, which said, “His ability to almost guarantee a big box office…means studios are willing to pay whatever it takes to get a bit of the Depp magic.” But in the years that followed, his accolades began to fall into the shadows of his off-screen antics, questioning whether studios will be willing to pay very much at all, or would prefer to protect their brand — both at the box office and in the realm of public perception, as major media companies are held to a higher standard than ever before, in the current social climate.
At stake for Depp is the question of if the salacious charges from the trial will overshadow his multi-million dollar brand, which includes another “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie for Disney, the next “Fantastic Beasts” sequel for Warner Bros. and a fashion partnership with Dior.
Warner Bros. declined to comment on Depp’s involvement in the next “Fantastic Beasts” film, in light of the libel trial. Disney, Dior, and Depp’s publicist Robin Baum did not respond to request for comment. Depp’s agency, CAA, was not available for comment.
Depp’s personal life has always captured public interest, dating back to the early 90’s when he was arrested for vandalizing a hotel room where he was staying with his then-girlfriend, model Kate Moss, and throughout the years he’s made no secret of his hard-partying lifestyle. His bad boy appeal used to be a selling point that defined his persona, but this recent trial has brought a new definition to bad behavior, allegedly, that may not be forgiven by the industry or forgotten by his fans.
During testimony, Heard, his ex-wife and star of “Aquaman,” claimed that Depp hit her on her 30th birthday and threatened to kill her. Heard, who has been photographed with bruises, said Depp threw a cell phone at her face, threw a champagne bottle towards her, grabbed her hair and pushed her to the ground. Depp – who has denied all of Heard’s allegations – took the stand and admitted he lost $650 million due to alleged financial mismanagement. One of the most bizarre details from the trial occurred when Depp alleged Heard, or one of her friends, had defecated in his bed.
Whatever the High Court’s ruling may be, the legal proceedings have put a spotlight on damning accusations that paint a dark picture of Depp, whether true or false. Regardless of the court of law, in a business where consumers drive the box office, Depp could lose in the court of public opinion.
“It’s obviously damaging to him, but how damaging is the question,” says high-profile attorney and women’s rights activist, Gloria Allred, who declined to comment on her reported consultation meeting with Heard in 2016 when the actress was divorcing Depp. Allred never retained the actress as a client, and has no affiliation to either party.
“I’m not going to speculate his motives for suing The Sun, but whether or not the court finds in his favor, he’s disputing a very serious allegation,” Allred says, explaining that simply disputing claims of spousal abuse could be a strategic tactic to cast doubt on Heard’s accusations, which have dominated headlines for the past five years.
The trial was messy, to say the least, with wild accusations flying from witnesses on both sides, often casting both Depp and Heard in a negative light.
Celebrities typically choose to avoid any drama that could harm their name, so why would Depp sue a tabloid and move forward with public court proceedings, in the first place? Legal experts say that, despite the chaos that comes with the cast, it’s all about the possibility of clearing his name.
“With most celebrity clients, everything is very personal because it’s their own name that’s being publicized and it’s their own personal brand, so they feel very invested,” says Jennifer Ko Craft, entertainment attorney at Dickinson Wright in Las Vegas, who has extensive experience working with high-profile stars, including Shaquille O’Neal and the Kardashian-Jenner family, who are among her clients.
“I’m not saying what they wrote about him is true or not, but perhaps he thinks there is enough doubt that he can bring about in court to be vindicated,” Ko Craft continues. “He maybe thinks he needs a forum to challenge what is being said about him, and this is a forum for him to be able to tell his side of the story, so that could be a motive…Even if he doesn’t prevail, there could be enough questions that he put out there in the public for him to start restoring his brand.”
Allred notes that cases dealing with violence against women are always tricky, and when celebrities are involved, the case is even more tough to crack. Plus, crimes against women are historically difficult to prove when there is only one victim.
“What if a celebrity only beat one woman — not to say that Johnny Depp did or did not — but what if that were the case?” Allred says. “Does one woman’s life and body matter, or does there have to be more? Why is one woman’s word not enough?”
Allred notes that a common thread of recent cases involving famous men during the #MeToo movement has been the large number of accusers coming forward, establishing a pattern against the accused.
“What we have seen is quite a few very high-profile cases against high-profile men where there have been accusations from more than one woman — Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein,” says Allred, who represented women in the trials against Cosby and Weinstein, and currently represents 20 accusers of Epstein. She notes that R. Kelly’s career survived many years of negative headlines, until a number of women came forward with egregious accusations against the now-imprisoned singer, who is awaiting his own trial.
“I look forward to the day where it doesn’t take 10 or 20 women for one women to be believed, but I’m still not sure if that’s going to be enough,” Allred says. “We’ll have to see how far we’ve really come in 2020. As much as we think we’re progressive, culturally, there is still a lot of bias against women – especially if she makes any accusation against a man, and especially if that man is a celebrity.”
In Depp’s case, Heard is the sole woman to make such claims. Though they did not testify, Depp’s former partners, actress Winona Ryder and model Vanessa Paradis, both made witness statements to the court in support of Depp, stating he was never violent toward them.
Depp has filed his own $50 million defamation case against Heard with the trial currently set to begin in Fairfax County, Virginia, in January of next year. During the U.K. trial, Depp accused Heard of punching him and giving him a black eye, and back in 2009, Heard was arrested for misdemeanor domestic violence after an altercation with her ex-girlfriend, though no charges were ultimately filed.
Before this trial, Depp’s off-screen antics had already begun to overshadow his immense talent, resulting in a string of flops over the past decade.
They include such duds as “Dark Shadows,” “Transcendence,” “Alice Through The Looking Glass,” and “Mortdecai,” all of which fizzled at the box office and were panned by critics. “Black Mass,” with Depp playing Whitey Bulger, got better reviews, but failed to earn him an Oscar nod and likely lost money.
There were also times when Depp’s off-screen issues caused production problems. After four mega-successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, shooting on the fifth film was delayed due to a hand injury Depp sustained. Reports at the time alleged Depp had hit rock bottom, showing up to set late, drinking excessively, failing to learn his lines and costing Disney millions of dollars in fees.
However, a handful of crew members that worked on films throughout the “Pirates” franchise, and asked to remain anonymous for this piece, told Variety that Depp was very polite, professional and lovely, and acted friendly towards kids on-set.
In a recent interview, “Pirates” producer Jerry Bruckheimer said he was “not quite sure what Johnny’s role is going to be” in the upcoming sixth installment, despite the fifth film making nearly $800 million. “We’re going to have to see,” Bruckheimer said when asked about Depp’s involvement.
When Depp appears alongside an ensemble, those films often still drive big numbers. But as a leading man, his box office power has greatly diminished, and studios may steer clear of casting Depp in major franchises, which will likely perform well, anyway, with built-in fanbases, like the “Harry Potter” spinoff “Fantastic Beasts.” In the case of “Fantastic Beasts,” Depp’s personal life became a distraction, at best, making him a publicity nightmare for the studio.
After waves of headlines reported Heard’s claims of domestic violence, fans criticized Depp’s casting, forcing J.K. Rowling to defend her hiring of Depp. (Fast-forward to today, and Warner Bros. has a multitude of problems with the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts,” considering Rowling’s controversial statements about the transgender community, not to mention production being shut down, due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
After the backlash and negative press with “Fantastic Beasts” – don’t forget that jarring “Rolling Stone” interview – Depp may pose too much of a liability to major movie studios in the socially-conscious atmosphere of 2020.
Depp isn’t just a movie star. He’s also the face of the male fragrance for Dior, a global brand, during a time in which celebrities can make more money for their off-screen endorsements than their on-screen roles. Depp reportedly signed a deal worth $3 to $5 million with Dior in 2015, prior to his split from Heard.
“Why there might be a benefit in him continuing with the suit is that in those brand agreements, there are morals provisions,” says Ko Craft, who specializes in intellectual property, trademark and copyright prosecution, licensing and enforcement and endorsement and commercial agreements.
Post #MeToo, moral provisions are rock solid, giving brands more power than the celebrity with whom they’ve put under contract, and there is very little leeway, should a star bring the brand into negative light.
“If you’ve violated some type of morals clause with anything that is questionable, the brand can terminate you with an existing agreement,” the attorney says. “And with new ones, your personal name is your brand. Johnny Depp is a brand.”
Depp has faced criticism in the past for engaging Depp to represent the brand, despite the allegations against him.
Ko Craft, who has never worked with Depp or Heard, believes Depp will face challenges when trying to obtain future brand deals in the future, despite the ruling.
“A lot of the damage has already been done because a lot of dirty laundry has been aired during the trial, against both parties, so his name is being put in a different light or being tarnished, and there could be brands who might not want to engage him as their face because there is now a negative association.”
“We live in a day in age where it doesn’t matter how big of a star you are,” Ko Craft says. “With certain claims, especially domestic abuse and violence against women, it doesn’t matter how big of an A-lister you are. It definitely hurts your brand and your ability to enter into agreements with third parties. This trial will be impactful in that way, no matter what the judgement is.”